Of course, once again, it’s really not all that happy of a Tuesday here for many of us. Coming off a weekend in which Ohio State lost in embarrassing fashion, the Cleveland Browns lost in the most ridiculous of ways, and the Cleveland Cavaliers lost twice to keep their winless ways going, well, there’s not a lot to be happy about in the Cleveland sports world.
This morning, I thought we could talk Cavs a little bit. It’s been a rough first week for the Wine and Gold. Their 0-3 start is the franchise’s first 0-3 start since the 2004-05 season, back when LeBron James was sharing the starting lineup with Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden, Lucious Harris, and Jeff McInnis.1 The Cavaliers being bad isn’t a surprise. When the Cavaliers signed Kevin Love, and some bristled at this being a sign of the team giving up their conditional draft pick next year, I always felt this team was safely in the bottom 10 even with Love. So the losing isn’t a surprise. What is a bit of a surprise, though, is the way it is happening.
The loss to the Atlanta Hawks was a real eye-opener for people like myself, who thought that while this team might be bad, losing to a team like the Hawks, who are openly tanking, wouldn’t be an option. Especially not in Cleveland’s home opener. We talk a lot about preserving the culture and the pride of these veterans, but not much of that has been on display so far this season. What we’ve seen, instead, is the sad reality of just how important LeBron James is to everything when it comes to the construction of a basketball team.
I know, we’re all tired of talking about LeBron. He’s gone. Again. We should get over it. Again. I get all of that. Yet it feels almost impossible to frame the context of this season without talking about LeBron. More specifically, LeBron’s absence. We can bury our heads in the sand all we want, but the truth is, what we are seeing so far is the cataclysmic wake of LeBron’s star machine tearing through this franchise once again.
LeBron delivered his promise of a Championship to this franchise, and for that most fans will be forever grateful. There’s no “HOW DARE HE LEAVE US?!?” coming from this corner of the internet. The Cavaliers, as a franchise, failed LeBron and failed us fans. Letting David Griffin walk, trading Kyrie Irving and not getting anything of value in return, bad luck in the salary cap exploding at exactly the right time to allow Kevin Durant to join the 73-win Golden State Warriors.2 Well, ok, that last one wasn’t the organization’s fault. But the truth is, no matter how much pressure LeBron put on the franchise with his one-year contracts, the team still squandered the opportunity LeBron gave them. That’s why he’s gone.
And now we as fans have to deal with the fallout of that. You remember how frustrating it was the last four years watching the Cavs fall apart every time LeBron went to the bench? Well, that’s just the team now. LeBron is forever on the bench and unavailable. And so far this season, the Cavaliers have predictably fallen apart without him.
That’s not to say there haven’t been bright spots this year. Seeing Cedi Osman continue to grow has been a lot of fun. He will still have off-nights like the one he had against Atlanta, for sure. But Cedi has shown signs of living up to the hopes of fans. While fans dislike the inefficient nature of Jordan Clarkson’s game, his scoring off the bench has been important to a team that can only win by out-scorching their opponent in the points column. The Cavaliers new focus on up-tempo fast basketball has been at least interesting to watch.
But the big question mark remains Kevin Love. The Cavaliers gave Love a four-year, $120 million extension this offseason. The contract was hotly debated, but the gist of it comes down to how you feel about Love and the value of keeping an All-Star and a leader with a playoff pedigree on the team. Much has been made of the way the Cavaliers mismanaged Kyrie Irving’s first three seasons, failing to surround him with veterans and leaders who could help show him the ropes. So the idea in keeping Love is, not only do you still have a really good basketball player on the team, but you also have a leader and a guy who can help develop the coming draft picks and instill leadership and professionalism into the locker room.
The problem is, Love isn’t playing much like an All-Star so far this season. And his $145 million price tag for these next five seasons isn’t worth it if he’s only going to provide leadership, culture, and pedigree. The Cavaliers need Love to provide value on the court as well. It’s not that Love isn’t trying. Maybe he’s actually trying too hard. Whatever the case, his shots aren’t falling and he’s been pressing a lot, trying to force a lot of things to happen.
Nobody should be overreacting to three games, of course. I’m actually optimistic that Love will settle into his new role eventually and things will turn around for him. And when that happens, the Cavs will win a few games here and there. The season will probably be exactly what we thought: an opportunity to see what young players like Osman, Collin Sexton, Clarkson, Rodney Hood, and Larry Nance, Jr can bring. Then add another top 10 pick this offseason and see where things go from there.
But the Love situation is something to keep an eye on. There are red flags. If a month from now we’re still seeing the same things and feeling the same way, then the team could find itself in a dire situation. Signing Love was always a risk. It made sense to me why the Cavs did it. The franchise just lost LeBron again. Having an All-Star player say “Hey, I like it in Cleveland. Even without LeBron here. Sure, I’ll stay!” provides a certain value to the organization. Optics matter, even if the Xs and Os don’t quite add up. So I got it. I understood why they did it, and I pretty much supported it. But the risk was always there. If Love underperformed, this contract could set the franchise back pretty heavily at some point in the future.
That’s a story for another time, though. For now, we’re just entering week two of the season. There’s still plenty of room for hope that this will be a fun team to watch who hangs in there in games but loses enough to ensure that the top-10 pick in the next draft will be kept. Compared to the way the rest of this weekend in Cleveland sports went, that actually doesn’t sound too bad.